The Reluctant Fundamentalist: A Movie Review
Director: Mira Nair
Based on the Novel by Mohsin Hamid
By Twylo Enmamud
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of Changez (played by Riz Ahmed), a brilliant young Pakistani who comes to the US on a scholarship to Princeton in search of the American dream. In the beginning, everything seem to be going well; he makes friends, finishes college, lands a job as an associate “management analyst/efficiency expert ” at a prestigious Wall Street international consulting company after being interviewed by one Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), who is impressed by his seeming ambition and determination. Shortly after, he meets love interest, Erica (Kate Hudson), a budding photographer from a well to do family. But then comes the beginning of the end… 9/11.
While away with his associates on a business trip to Manilla, he turns on the television to see that the North tower has just been struck by an airplane. His face reflects the emotions of disbelief, awe, and shock, and even the hint of a smile curves the corner of his lips at one point. Then, as he watches the live report on the screen, another air craft crashes into the south tower and explodes. Aghast, his body involuntarily jerks back from the screen and his hand raises to cover his mouth.
On his return to the states, Changez has barely gotten
off the plane with his associates (His boss, Mr. Cross and friend/fellow analyst, Wainwright, an African-American) when he experiences, first hand, one of the early aftereffects of 9/11; he is profiled as a terrorist because of his race, separated from his associates –under the protests of Mr.Cross, and taken to a room where he is made to strip naked and suffer the violation of a cavity search at the hands of security. He is then questioned by federal agents who seem almost comical in their determination to wrench a terrorist confession from Changez. They accusingly question him with hellbent brows and x-ray eyes, but then after a while, having no valid reason for detaining him, they let him go .
In another incident, there is a South Asian-looking man who stands in front of a newsstand near the corner of the office building where Changez works. There are pictures of Osama Bin laden displayed over most of the newspaper and magazine covers. The man reacts to this by preaching out loud to the passersby and causing a scene. He eventually starts cursing and yelling, and seemingly making threats to Americans in his own language. Inevitably, someone calls the police, who arrive just as the man has exited down a subway entrance. Unfortunately, Changez is leaving work about this time and passes right by the newsstand. The police, seeing a Middle-Eastern looking man, automatically follow him around a corner and arrest him. He protests, explaining that he works in the building right there, and had nothing to do with what happened. But he is cuffed, and shoved into the back seat of the police car rather unceremoniously by an African-American Cop.
Other smaller incidents occur that intensify Changez’s sense of alienation, such as; when he returns from a wedding in his homeland with a short beard & mustache. This only serves to further delineate his “terrorist profile.”
He is given sideways glances by some of his colleagues at work and, and his boss, Cross, suggests that he revert back to his old appearance. However, this suggestion is softened by the news that he has been promoted to associate partner in the company.
The one straw that really puts him over the edge, however, is when his Erica, who has been sequestered away working on a new photography/multimedia exhibit, finally announces that she is finished, and invites Changez to the grand opening gala. Changez walks in to find that the exhibit is centered on him, and that Erica has displayed pictures, and very intimate dialogue from their personal relationship all over the walls, accentuated by garish neon lighting. One of the quotes is from a private ongoing joke they share that starts
out “I once had a Pakistani;” another is from an intimate moment in the midst of their love-making where Changez attempts to put Erica at ease by saying, “Make-believe I’m him!” “Him,” referring to Erica’s former lover who died in a car crash just over 4 months before she and Changez met. Changez becomes furious that she would exhibit their private moments all over the walls for everyone to see. He accuses her exploiting their relationship and the fact that he is a Pakistani Muslim in the midst of a volatile social climate, but Erica doesn’t seem to understand that she’s done anything wrong, or why Changez is so upset. He retaliates with some very harsh and insensitive words, then storms out.
Changez’s resolve is further deminished when he is assigned to consult a failing publishing company in Turkey. He must decide whether the company’s performance can be improved, or its assets must be liquidated. The company’s President, Nazmi Kemal (played by Haluk Bilginer) causes him question the ethics of the work that he does, and the morality of profiting from the loss of others. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Changez eventually has his fill of the “American Dream” and the ignorance of bigotry. After some soul-searching, he decides to leave it all and return to his own country where he gets a job as a professor teaching Revolutionary Theory at the University of Lahore. But even there, he cannot shake the aftermath of 9/11, as a terrorist event brings it right back to his doorstep. It is from this vantage point that The character, Changez, takes us back in time to tell his story.
Shortly after his return to Pakistan, Changez is contacted by a powerful man, Adil Hussain (Mustafa Fazil), with close ties to the Taliban. Hussain offers him a chance to make a difference by joining their side in the fight. After the pain and humiliation that he‘s experienced in America,
Changez is almost tempted to give in to the darkness; to exorcise his anger through retribution. But after thinking it through, he comes to his senses and realizes that retribution is not the answer; that spilling more blood will only serve prolong The war on terror.
There is a short but potent scene in The Reluctant Fundamentalist where Changez has just begun his teaching job at the university. He is trying to impart to his students a sense of their own power, and what they can do to make things better in the place where they live. He relates his experience with pursuing the “American dream” to his students, and asks them afterward to consider, “What is the Pakistani dream?” “What is the Pakistani dream that does not involve immigrating to America?”
When all is said and done, the message we are left with is that we have to be strong
in the face of that which would consume our humanity, and that we can find a way to grow and prosper without selling our soul to the company store, or taking a side in the war on terror simply because we don’t feel strong or brave enough to stand on our own with out the support of the extremist ideology of either side. The Reluctant Fundamentalist encourages us to stand up for what we know in our hearts is right, and to meet each situation and each individual without being swayed by the ignorance of bigotry. Only then can we look beyond the external differences to the core that binds us all — our humanity. This is the true power of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. And though this movie languishes at times and the end is a bit predictable, overall, it is very effective. It delivers an array of powerful and thought-provoking scenes that are executed convincingly by a cast of capable actors.
I give The Reluctant Fundamentalist 4 stars